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It's not just queasy riders who relish a good airsickness bag

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(Warning: Anyone with a weak stomach is advised to skip ahead.)

 

TALK about your ill-gotten gains!

Readers may find this hard to digest, but a healthy number of people actively hoard airsickness bags. Yes, the sort commonly provided to passengers aboard planes in the event they (choose a euphemism) toss their cookies/lose their lunch/clear their tonsils.

Not only does a fellow from Massachusetts maintain an Air Sickness Bag Virtual Museum at www.airsicknessbags.com (visitors are encouraged to become "patrons of puke" by donating to Steven Silberberg's cause), but the Guinness Book of World Records credits a Netherlands man, Niek Vermeulen, with having the largest collection: 5,180 and counting.

Unusual? Sweden's Rune Tapper certainly thought so when he set out to establish his first Internet site 15 years ago.

"The story is that in the '90s, people were making their own web pages and I wanted to start one of my own, too," Tapper says from his home in Kumla. "Most of the early sites I saw featured people's cats or dogs, but since none of those were getting many hits, I decided I needed something odd to set myself apart."

Tapper, a radio engineer, posted scans of five airsickness bags he'd kept as mementos of past trips.

He soon learned that his subject matter wasn't as idiosyncratic as he thought.

"Within days, e-mails began pouring in from collectors everywhere looking to swap," he says. "To the point where I now have over 1,000 bags and a network of agents all over the world."

Tapper's lot can be enjoyed at his present-day website, Rune's Barf Bag Collection (www.sicksack.com). There, 1,204 bags from 468 airlines in 132 countries are arranged in alphabetical order by continent of origin.

The true north strong and free is well-represented, thanks to specimens from Air Canada, CP Air and Canada 3000. (Zip, a defunct Canuck carrier formerly based in Calgary, avoided the whole two-official-languages debate by simply writing "Yuk" on its pouches.)

Aside from unanimously agreeing that bags should be unsoiled, people differ in the approach they take to collecting, Tapper says.

"There are some who only keep bags from their personal travels while others concentrate on specific parts of the world. Most require that their bags must be absolutely flat, with no wrinkles or stains."

And although vintage examples have fetched as much as $220 on eBay, the vast majority of hobbyists rely on trades to build up their cache. (Modern-day airsickness bags were invented in 1949 by North Dakotan Gilmore Schjeldahl. Tapper believes some of his bags go back 40 years, but that's hard to verify, he says, because so few harbour any type of date stamp.)

Über-rare novelty bags with no links to the friendly skies whatsoever are always in high demand, Tanner says. Those include politically charged sacks like the one issued by the Public Advocate of the United States that read: "Hillary Clinton Barf Bag: Socialized medicine makes me sick."

Some organizations have turned to airsickness bags as a form of advertising. A Florida credit union, for example, lured in new customers by giving away bags asking, 'Is your bank making you sick?' Even Hollywood has gotten in on the act: in 1974, theatre owners doled out plastic-lined receptacles to people lining up to see horror flick The Exorcist.

Certain airlines cater to collectors by releasing limited-edition bags. For a brief period, Germany-based Hapag Lloyd Express dispensed vessels that said, tongue-in-cheek, "Thank you for your criticism!" And in 2005, Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic Airways issued a set of four airsickness bags promoting the Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith video game.

Nowadays, however, more and more companies are cutting costs by providing generic airsickness bags only.

"We are very, very upset by this," Tapper says. "Most North American airlines now use plain white bags -- it is a disgrace!"

If there's such a thing as a Holy Grail of airsickness bags, it would either be a souvenir from Air Force One, the jet used to transport the president of the United States, or one from the space shuttle.

"There is another, but I'm not sure if it actually exists," says Tapper. "In the motion picture Independence Day, there was a scene with a grey bag with a presidential seal on it. I'd love to get my hands on that."

Tapper, who stores his vast assortment in a series of shoeboxes, seems to sense the question that is coming next.

"Have I ever used an airsickness bag? Just once, when I was 10 years old and flew from Norrköping to Visby."

And what about others? How do friends and family react to Tapper's preoccupation?

"Are you kidding? My wife left me and my neighbours hate me," he says half-jokingly.

If you have any airsickness bags you think Rune Tapper would be interested in, feel free to contact him through his website. All donors net a mention in his Hall of Fame.

If you'd like to share the story of your collection with our readers -- anything from soup to lug nuts -- please contact David Sanderson at david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca. His column appears bimonthly.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 1, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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